Stephenson Blake' proofing press

Saturday 21 April 2007

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She's not even sure who built it, but Karen Charlesworth is chuffed with its fabulous rolling power, and the fact that it's heavier than her car

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Charlesworth with the Stephensons roller carriage

What is it?
I’m not quite sure. It’s definitely a press, though. I think it’s a proofing press, and experts tell me it was probably made by the type foundry Stephenson Blake back in the 1920s. It’s made of single-cast pieces of iron, with a steel bed, and its total weight is more than my car – which is a Toyota Yaris, so that’s not saying much. The press has been the making of my letterpress workshop. Before, I only had a little 8x5 Adana on which I couldn’t print anything bigger than 170x100mm. With this press, I can print any size sheet up to 350x750mm. I don’t use it for proofing, I use it for the short runs I do, which are all typically under a hundred copies. It’s great.

Why did you choose this particular product?
I wanted a press with a bigger bed, and preferably a flat bed, rather than the Adana’s vertical bed. For me, this is the perfect in-between. I hope, at some stage, to buy a 19th century press, like an Albion, a Columbia or a Stanhope maybe, and my proofing press allows me to bridge the gap. On this, I’ve got used to setting bigger type and printing bigger documents – and hefting big, heavy formes around. Also, I’ve been able to print from my beloved Victorian wood type for the first time. It turns out fabulous solids – its rolling power is second-to-none.

Did you look at any similar presses?
Are there any presses still in existence like this one? I’m sure there must be a handful, but they’re probably quite rare. I’d have looked at others if I’d known of any.

What features do you particularly like?
The inking rollers. You splodge the ink onto the top roller and turn a little handle at the side to work the inking train, and that spreads the ink evenly across the inking roller at just the right level of tack. It saves me getting out my ink mixing sheet (aka a glass chopping board) and working the ink up to a suitable tack before applying it to the forme with a hand roller. That’s a messy process, and it takes ages to get the tack just right. Also, I like the two shelves underneath – they come in handy for storing paper.

What features do you dislike?
The fact the inking rollers don’t have auto wash-up. If I could just sit back while it all cleaned itself, I’d be ecstatic.

What about the service?
I bought the press from Belinda Magee, a design lecturer at Goldsmith’s College, London. She was relocating from south-east London to a rural idyll in the Home Counties, and she didn’t want to take it with her. The service was fabulous: she made me endless cups of tea and chatted about letterpress while her partner, Niall, took the press apart and carried it down six flights of stairs. Niall also drew me a very helpful diagram to reassemble the press with.

Were there any difficulties experienced during the commissioning or installation?
Yes. Southwark Borough Council gave me a totally unwarranted parking ticket while I was parked outside Belinda and Niall’s house in Tanner Row. They claimed I wasn’t displaying a parking permit. I took photos of the permit that had been on full display in the window and threatened to take the council to court with this evidence if they didn’t rescind the ticket. They did. As for the press, it was easy to reassemble, thanks to Niall’s diagram, although imperial measurement spanners weren’t easy to find.

Under what circumstances would you buy another?
Having a bigger workshop space, having more time to indulge my hobby printing activities, or if this one fell apart!


CONCLUSION
User’s verdict
Speed 1/5
Accuracy 3/5
Reliability 5/5
Value for money 5/5

Supplier’s response
Belinda Magee, previous owner, says: “This press is a lovely object. We’ve never used it because we’re not quite sure how it works, but it’s been a rather beautiful conversation-opener in our flat for the past couple of years. We picked it up from an old London printer who was having a clear-out. I can’t remember what we paid him, but it wasn’t much. I’m really pleased it’s gone to somebody who’s making good use of it.”
Price £150

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